Jonathan Edwards, in his Freedom of the Will, wrote that “Many particular things may concur and unite their strength to induce the mind; and when it is so, all together are as it were one complex motive” (Yale edition, 1.2—p. 141). Let me chase Edwards’ point: how is it that a host of “particular things” shape each of our daily decisions?
To begin I think it’s fair to say that whenever we face a decision we become aware of our internal processing as reflected in comments like, “let me think about that for a minute”. Our pause plays an important role in reaching the decision. But what are we really doing when we pause?
The rational option. One assumption about such reflective moments is that we always begin with relative neutrality or indifference when we make decisions. Thus we need to think objectively about all the possible outcomes of the options before us. It’s as if we have a clean sheet to write on as we make the decision; so our mind needs time to chart out the options. The wise person is one who can think clearly, effectively, and comprehensively about all the possible implications of the decision.
The volitional option. Another assumption about our decision-making is that we all start from a state of relative inertia when we make decisions. The idea is that we are faced with a call to move—whether intellectually, physically, or both—from where we are at the present moment to a new location, so we need to muster the energy to start that movement. From this perspective the question of options—of thinking through what we might do—is only secondary to our need to “get going” with one of the new options before us. So the decisive person is less prone to ponder and more prone to act quickly and strongly to embrace whatever option looks most credible.
Both the rational and the volitional models presume a starting point of personal independence. There is another approach—the affective or response-based view—that presumes a personal dependence on others in all decisions.
The affective option. This third decision-making paradigm is heart-based and relational in its orientation. In a given moment of decision our souls are neither neutral nor suffering from inertia. Instead any decision amounts to a call for redirection away from some current values—our present affections—that are already in play.
Our “thinking”, then, is a process of comparing how much we might “like” the new option in light of what we already want. The process is rational in the sense that our reasoning processes must consult our hearts about where our strongest desires lie—desires formed in earlier emotional contexts—so the mind probes the past for insights about what to do next.
In this portrayal of the soul the mind is never the source of our motivations, only a processor of our heart values. That is, the mind rationalizes how any new desires are now to be portrayed as more valuable than what we once wanted. It explains our love.
And any sense of a volitional need to “get going” is illusory because we’re already going somewhere. The real question is whether where we once wanted to go can withstand the competition of a new affection. Hearts are slow in giving up old affections but are always prepared to sample new desires. Which aligns with the warning in Proverbs 4:23 to “Guard your heart with all vigilance for from it flow the springs of life.”
The question, then, of Edwards’ notion of how “particular things” shape each of our daily decisions can be answered as if we were not heart-based beings but beings who are morally and affectively neutral; or who always operate as self-starters without any prior desires that shape our choices. Or we can see ourselves as responders either to God’s love or to a love of the world in each moment of life.
Jesus answered the debate at a number of points. Let me cite just one text in concluding. Jesus (in John 8: 31-59) told a group of free will advocates that, “your will is to do your father’s desires” and thus they were each “a slave to sin” because they lacked any love for Jesus: “If God were your father you would love me.”
So as we make decisions our inward processing is oriented either by a delight in God who loves Jesus; or by a desire to be like god ourselves which is the sole alternative trajectory for making decisions. Each decision is relational and calls us to ponder which relationship we may want to enhance, and how those bonds can grow.
Think about it!